say that Apple events have become boring is a cliche. With rare exceptions, such as the first iPhone launch, they’ve always been overhyped publicity stunts that feature incremental and largely predictable updates to familiar product lines. And yet they matter nonetheless because nearly a billion people rely on Apple’s gadgets as their constant companion and portal to the online world. At that scale, incremental changes can have big impacts.
All that said, Tuesday’s Apple event really was kind of boring. Yes, the company unveiled a slew of new devices — that is, new models of old devices — and launched two new subscription services (TV and gaming). On the other hand, none of those new products came as a surprise: The event announcements mostly confirmed leaks and filled in the details. There was no “one more thing,” and even the relatively minor new device category that some expected — a Tile-like tracker for lost items — didn’t materialize.
Rather than bemoan the things Apple didn’t announce, however, let’s look at the most worthwhile things it did. Here are five, ranked by a highly scientific and objective criterion that I’ll call “interestingness.”
1. An Apple Watch that tells the time all day
Yes, wristwatches that display the time at all times were invented in the 19th century. But it took five versions of the Apple Watch for Apple to get there. The Series 5 watch has an “always-on” display that merely dims when you aren’t looking at it, rather than going black. That’s a significant feature for a device that many use as a health and fitness tracker: Now you can see your watch face even if your arm is occupied. It’s an even more significant feature for a device that many use as, well, a watch: Now you can steal a glance at the time without conspicuously raising the watch to your face and staring at it.
The Apple Watch 5 also has a built-in compass, allows international emergency calling, and comes in new materials, such as titanium. It starts at $400 without cellular connectivity or $500 with it, and will ship September 20.
2. iPhones that are basically fancy cameras
The big news on the iPhone front is actually on the iPhone back: All three new iPhones come with more rear-facing cameras than their predecessors. The midrange iPhone 11 comes with dual rear-facing cameras, up from one in its predecessor, the iPhone XR. And the top-of-the-line iPhone Pro and iPhone Pro Max pack in three rear-facing cameras, up from two in the iPhone XS and XS Max, which they replace. (A classic Onion article comes to mind.) For those interested in how the technology works, OneZero colleague Dave Gershgorn explains the significance of the iPhone’s new camera system in some depth. For practical purposes, the three lenses allow ultra-wide-angle shots, a sort of optical zoom, depth perception for augmented reality, and generally snazzier photos. Meanwhile, even with its paltry dual lens, the iPhone 11 will be capable of new gimmicks such as night mode and “slofies,” Apple’s tongue-in-cheek buzzword for selfie videos captured in slow motion.
The high-level takeaway is that camera technology is now the smartphone industry’s cutting edge. In an era when pretty much any smartphone is sufficient to run most software applications, Apple has concluded that fancier cameras are the best way to sell people on pricey new devices. The new iPhones also boast higher-performance chips and come in new colors. The iPhone Pro and Pro Max will start at $1000 and $1100, while the iPhone XR will start at $700.
3. A TV streaming service that won’t break the budget
We knew from Apple’s March event that it was coming out with Apple TV Plus, a streaming service for original shows and movies, as well as Apple Arcade, a subscription gaming service. Tuesday’s event filled in the specifics, the most notable of which is the price of Apple TV Plus: a surprisingly reasonable $5 per month. That makes it cheaper than Disney’s new streaming service, which starts at $7 per month, not to mention Netflix, whose plans cost $9, $13, and $16 per month. Comparisons to Netflix seem a little ambitious, however. Unlike it or Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus will offer a more limited number of shows at launch, focusing on original content produced exclusively for the service. It probably won’t replace your other streaming subscriptions anytime soon.
Apple TV Plus will enjoy one major competitive boost, however: Apple will include one year free with the purchase of a new Apple device. A similar “free trial” strategy helped Apple Music catch up to rival Spotify, and it should give TV Plus every chance to establish itself before customers have to decide whether to renew. Another group that will be watching closely: antitrust regulators. The service launches November 1.
4. Cheaper versions of old phones and watches that are perfectly good
With the $700 iPhone 11 and $1,000-plus iPhone Pro models, Apple is sticking with the two-tier pricing system it adopted last year with the XR and XS. That’s good news for people who want a new phone but aren’t fabulously wealthy. Better still is that Apple is cutting prices on the iPhone 8 and XR to $450 and $600, respectively. Unless you’re a truly avid photographer, those phones will do everything you need. That’s the silver lining to boring iPhone launches: When the new devices aren’t dramatically more appealing, the old ones become increasingly viable alternatives. Enjoy it this year, because next year Apple is expected to unveil 5G iPhones that figure to be more coveted than this year’s models.
The old Apple Watch Series 3 also gets a price cut, to $200 for the base model and $300 for the cellular version.
5. A health research program for Apple Watch
New consumer technology is generally a luxury good — something people want but don’t need — and the Apple Watch certainly started out that way. But with recent versions, Apple has gotten increasingly serious about health features, from fitness tracking to heart rate monitors to a fall detection system. With WatchOS 6, Apple adds menstrual cycle tracking and ambient noise monitoring to warn you of potential hearing loss. In addition, the company said Tuesday that it’s launching three new health studies: one for women’s health, one for hearing, and one for heart health. It’s partnering with major research institutions on each, and Apple Watch users can enroll through a forthcoming Apple Research app. All of which is significant because, at a time when Apple is having a harder time convincing people to buy new phones and tablets, marketing the watch as a device that could keep you healthy or even save your life might help to radically expand its market.